In the past year, the number of students registered for University of Michigan Health System clinical studies has increased twofold — from just 1,500 last year to over 3,000 currently — and the principal reason behind the increase is in debate.
Feedback from University faculty of the Michigan Institute of Clinical & Health Research and from students reveals two main reasons for the increase: the unselfish desire to benefit others and monetary compensation.
According to Ana Austin, assistant managing director of MICHR, the increased participation in clinical studies has more to do with mounting efforts to reach out to the community than with the economic downturn.
The number of registered students is taken from the estimated 430 studies that are registered on an online bulletin board through MICHR, according to Austin. Overall, there are over 3,000 active clinical studies in UMHS itself.
“We’ve gone to health fairs, we’ve done outreach campaigns in the media and we’ve passed things out,” Austin said. “We’ve done a lot proactively to get the word out for all kinds of studies — ones with financial incentives and ones without.”
But, registering does not necessarily imply participation — it merely means the individuals have made themselves available for the surveys. The conductors of each study are responsible for choosing participants for their surveys.
Austin also said that while people participate for many reasons, the MICHR institutional review board discourages doing so for purely financial reasons.
At the same time, Austin said that she thinks people are more likely to participate in studies to improve others’ welfare and to have a personal stake in a particular area of research than to reap any economic benefit.
“Financial compensation is not considered a benefit of participating,” Austin said. “It’s really just there to fairly compensate people for their time, because we recognize that often people have to drive to the study site, they have to park, and they have to take time away from their job.”
“(The review board) looks at the compensation to make sure it isn’t too low, so people won’t be unduly burdened, but not too high so people won’t be tempted to participate in something that isn’t right for them.”
Austin said that during difficult financial times, people tend to look for new ways to pay the bills, which may have been a factor in the increase of applicants. But Austin added that the primary reason for the rise was increased advertising.
Austin says that a key part of the role of MICHR in these studies is finding the right participants for each given survey.
“People take part for a lot of different reasons, including altruistic reasons,” Austin said. “They might have a disease or condition, and they might want to make sure future patients can have better treatments. They want to participate in some way to advance science in that field.”
She also emphasized that money is not as significant of a motivating factor as it may seem.
“We’ve made a big effort to reach out to the community to let them now about opportunities to participate,” Austin said. “So I don’t think it would be accurate to say that (the increase) is something that has happened simply because of the economy.”
LSA sophomore Arik Alfi agreed that financial incentive during the economic downturn was not the deciding factor behind his participation in clinical studies, none of which were done within UMHS. Instead, he participated in experiments mostly in the field of economics. Alfi credited the opportunity to help conduct advanced research as the reason he first considered participating but added that the money, paid in cash, didn’t hurt either.
In one University study, participants were guaranteed $5 per hour, but averaged closer to $15 per hour. Alfi remembered one study where he made $40 in approximately an hour. In another, he was given $30 after searching on Google for an hour and a half.
Such high compensation is what led others, like Nursing sophomore Jillian Traskos, to participate in clinical studies.
“I practically collect clinical surveys!” Traskos wrote in e-mail interview. “Personally, I love the surveys because I get a little extra cash without having to go through the process of job hunting, interviews, training. … Payment generally comes to more than eight dollars an hour, which really adds up for a college student who doesn’t have time for a real job.”
Traskos, who felt the rise in participant interest was directly related to the economy, also noted that she picks and chooses which surveys interest her the most and which fit her schedule the best. Traskos cited financial incentive as her first priority.
Furthermore, Traskos wrote that as a result of participating in surveys, she has learned a fair amount about psychology, sociology, business management and UMHS.